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‘Grieving mode’: Hampshire College community reacts to staff, faculty losses

  • Charles and Polly Longsworth Arts Village at Hampshire College, Tuesday, April 30, 2019.

  • Robert Crown Center at Hampshire College, Tuesday, April 30, 2019.



Staff Writer
Friday, May 10, 2019

AMHERST — It was the day everyone knew was coming. 

When financially struggling Hampshire College — a school the relies on tuition for close to 90 percent of its revenue — decided on Feb. 1 not to admit a full class this fall, layoffs became inevitable. And last Tuesday, the second round of cuts was announced, leaving the Hampshire community to reckon with the fallout. 

“The college is kind of in a grieving mode” was how interim President Ken Rosenthal put it recently.

Twenty-four staffers are losing their jobs by June 30. For faculty, 26 are taking voluntary leaves of absence; many, though not all, have found visiting positions at the other of the Five Colleges. Another 21 faculty members will have their hours reduced, eight faculty are immediately retiring, three will have phased retirements and 12 visiting faculty members did not have their contracts renewed.

“The whole uprising kind of makes me feel like I was part of the college … but in the final analysis, I wasn’t,” said Peter Gilford, who had been a part-time visiting assistant professor of clinical psychology for 14 years before the college decided not to renew his contract. “So, yeah, it burns.”

Staff members were hit hardest by the cuts, as they have been in years past when the college sought to tighten its belt. In addition to the 24 who received pink slips earlier this week, nine staffers were given layoff notices in February. And 34 food service workers will lose their jobs in August because the college did not renew its contract with the third-party company that runs a café on campus.

Several staffers declined to speak with the Gazette, and the college’s Staff Advocacy Committee declined to provide a statement.

Amy Halliday, the gallery director at the Harold Johnson Library, said in an email that she did not lose her staff job. But she added that she and the other staffers remaining on campus are still affected by the job cuts and reductions, losing friends they care about and colleagues they rely on.

“Their institutional memory and the individual magic they brought to this place will be lost,” Halliday wrote, adding that the essential work those staffers did will either “be left undone or be absorbed by the ever-more stretched group that remains.”

Yet even as employees deal with their new reality, Halliday said they will remain hopeful. They’ll continue to support their students as they try “to imagine and write the next chapter of the Hampshire story,” she said.

To that end, Halliday said she is working on organizing a community event — not unlike recent potlucks she has thrown on campus — to bring people together “across all emotions and experiences and complexity of this semester.”

Another staffer who avoided the layoffs was John Bruner, the college’s advanced media coordinator. He said that community-building efforts like Halliday’s are important.

“In whatever way we can manage it, I think it’s really important for us to try to keep spirits up,” he said.

Bruner said the current moment is very much about painful departures — he said he has had many sidewalk encounters on campus recently that involve tears and hugs. But come fall, there will be work to do educating students, he said, adding that it’s important to move forward.

“I’m trying to find bright spots of hope that we can rely on,” he said.

Faculty plan for future

For faculty, things shook out a bit differently. That’s partly because they have contracts that couldn’t easily be broken. The faculty are also part of an organization, the American Association of University Professors, that found ways to keep as many professors as possible within Hampshire’s orbit.

“The AAUP was instrumental,” said Jennifer Hamilton, the president of Hampshire’s AAUP chapter. “Some of our members came up with the idea of what we called ‘reapportioning’ — figuring out how to do budget cuts without layoffs.”

With the sacrifices that faculty made, the college is able to maintain the quality of education students receive and ensure that current students have access to faculty members who will be at other nearby colleges, Hamilton said. And Rosenthal said the college is going to find money to pay faculty to continue advising their students on their projects — an essential part of Hampshire’s pedagogy.

“I think a lot of faculty are really heartened that we were able to come together as a faculty community and work out alternatives to layoffs,” said philosophy professor Christoph Cox.

Right decisions?

Chris Perry, a professor of media arts and sciences who came to Hampshire from Pixar Animation Studios, is one of those taking a leave of absence, though he has not yet lined up a replacement job. He said he was already planning to take a year of leave to explore work in the entertainment field, but now he will have to extend that leave.

Overall, Perry said he’s pleased Hampshire didn’t have to break current faculty contracts. But he questions whether the right decisions were made earlier this year. Perry described the college’s Jan. 15 announcement that it was seeking a partner institution, followed by the Feb. 1 decision not to admit a fall class, as a “preemptive strike” that “kind of forced some things to happen.”

“I don’t know the right answer, but it seems like we’d have a less bleak outlook if we had students coming to campus in the fall,” he said.

For those who lost their jobs, the situation really can seem bleak, particularly given the increased downsizing and closing of colleges across the country — a trend experts predict will accelerate in the coming years — and the reliance of many colleges on temporary employees.​​​​​​

That certainly rings true for Gilford, the visiting assistant professor of clinical psychology who was let go after 14 years.

“There’s an academic underclass, and Hampshire doesn’t like to admit it,” Gilford said. “But it’s there.”

Gilford said he will be fine in the long run as he now focuses full time on his private practice. But he felt Hampshire treated him “lousy the whole time” he was there. He didn’t ever want to be full time, but said that being brought back as a visiting scholar each time the college renewed his contract put him “in a particular category of employee with very few rights.”

“It’s not that there wasn’t a great demand for me,” he said, adding that he had 30 students signed up for his fall class. “It is simply that I was in this category that they could ax without any legal problems.”

Hampshire is a place that prides itself on its progressivism, Gilford said. But when the financial forecast darkened this year, Hampshire reacted like any other college focused on the bottom line, he added.

“I think what’s painful for so many people,” Gilford said, “is that the college fell flat on its face.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.